Focal Points Blog

Seed of Destruction: Nuclear ‘Pits’

If a nuclear weapon is an evil fruit of the times we live in, its “pit” is like a dollop of brimstone ladled out by Satan with love from hell.

Didn’t know a nuclear weapon has a pit? First, it behooves us to note that the word “pit” has a number of definitions. In fact, even when applied to fruit — “a seed covered by a stony layer” — it’s of two faces like Janus. To humans, it’s waste material to be discarded, but from a tree’s point of view (on whatever level, such as cellular), it’s a means of ensuring the future of its species.

The nuclear-weapons industry adopted the word “pit” for the weapon’s core, which is power-packed with the varieties of uranium or plutonium isotopes capable of a warp-speed chain reaction. Yes, it’s a seed for the a chain reaction. But instead of ensuring anything or anyone’s continued existence, the pit instead serves as a cache for — drum roll, please — a seed of destruction.

Why have I brought up the subject of nuclear pits? A project for their production is pivotal to the Obama administration’s plans for nuclear modernization. In a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists piece titled Bunker mentality: Is NNSA digging itself into a hole at Los Alamos?, Greg Mello writes that “as part of the New START ratification package, the administration projects $16 billion in new warhead spending over this decade.” A beneficiary of the funding, if passed by Congress, would be Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, where — boring name alert — the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility for producing said pits would be built for a whopping $3.4 billion.

Mello writes that, at “270,000-square-foot” the new facility “would add only 22,500-square-feet of additional plutonium processing and lab space to [Los Alamos's] existing 59,600-square-feet of comparable space.” It “works out to $151,000 per square foot, or $1,049 per square inch.” Holy (watch your tax dollars go up in) smoke!

“But why make pits at all?” Mello asks.

Aside from the many potent reasons to steadily diminish a reliance on nuclear weapons . . . there is already a surfeit of backup pits [which] will last for many decades to come. [Nor is there a] shortage of space to make pits, either at [Los Alamos] or nationwide. … Were [the new facility] in place, [it] would increase production capacity to an even more absurd level. … Every aspect of the . . . project, from the mission itself to the practicality of the building design, should be questioned far more deeply than Congress has done to date.

The Obama administration is making generous concessions to the nuclear industry presumably, as alluded to above, to win votes from Republicans on the new START treaty and other disarmament measures, however tepid. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if the administration and conservatives have committed themselves to cooperation (respectable speak for “conspiracy”) in finding ways to keep the “nuclear-industrial complex” humming along, if at a diminished velocity from its heyday in the fifties to eighties.

Reader Challenge: Trade Flotilla Investigation for Blockade?

Earlier today, Marc Lynch posted a piece entitled “A Good Deal For Gaza” in which he noted reports that the Israeli government is to “significantly ease the blockade of Gaza in exchange for American support for a whitewash of the investigation of the flotilla incident” and argued that “trading off the investigation for the blockade was the right move” for Gazans.

. . . writes Steve Hynd at Newshoggers in Accepting Crumbs? More:

Newshoggers’ pal Tehranchick writes in an email published with her kind permission:

. . . Throwing a few crumbs in their (Palestinians) direction isn’t going to help when we know that the Israeli government can just as easily stop with the crumbs. I see this issue of ‘easing’ as nothing more than concession and appeasement after murderous attack on the flotilla. So please, convince me that Palestinians are going to get real help from ‘the easing.’ Convince me that Netanyahu is serious about change.

That these “crumbs” can be stopped and started at Israeli whim is something Issandr El Amrani at The Arabist worries about too. …

The devil will be in the details, such as the list of allowed goods Israel still has to publish and the character and length of the border procedures for people and goods moving in and out.

To be honest, I think it will take more than one. But I also think that the Gaza Flotilla episode has undermined something crucial in the united-we-stand wall that the US and Israeli have presented to the world. … Thus, although it sticks in my craw to countenance a lack of legal accountability for the Flotilla assault, I’ll reluctantly take the product, if that leads to a wall being tore down, instead.

Finally, Abu Aardvaark himself tweeted:

To all: I’m skeptical about implementation of new Gaza rules too, but still think it’s better to take positive move and work with it.

Do Focal Points readers stand in agreement with Steve Hynd and Marc-Abu Ardvark-Lynch?

Loose Oil Is a Way of Life in West Africa

I believe it was Amiri Baraka who once said, “one man’s fast is another man’s slow.” The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has destroyed a way of life for many American fishermen. This should be accepted as fact not fiction. The landscape of our nation is going to change soon and not for the better. The recent oil spill is not an aberration. Just look at the story in The New York Times (June 16, 2010) about the awful conditions in the Niger Delta. It’s obvious we need the media to expand its coverage of oil spills. How soon will toxic wastelands become a normal sight for Americans, the way it is for some Nigerians? It’s unfortunate that Africa is still a “dark continent” when it comes to shedding light on the operations of the oil industry. When I read the following in the newspaper, I wanted to weep:

Big oil spills are no longer news in this vast, tropical land. The Niger Delta — where the wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface — has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and some swamps are long since lifeless.

BP is talking about cleaning up the mess they made. But what does clean-up really mean? Is it no visible oil on the surface of the water? How can life survive after being embraced by oil? What fish or birds would ever want to make love?

In the Niger Delta the villain is Shell. Oil leaks in the region are also a result of oil thieves and aging pipelines, no longer properly being maintained. The people in the Niger Delta have been battling for years to control their destiny and protect their environment.

One wonders what will happen here in the United States? Will a populist movement organize against a big oil company? Will the “small” people fight back?

It might be a good idea to bring Nigerian fishermen and folks from Louisiana to Washington and have them sit side by side and tell their stories. There is a similar (if not singular) narrative taking place and it is beginning to sound too much like science-fiction.

The fear of a black planet could be one engulfed by oil.

Protesters Speak Out Against U.S. Support for Ethiopian Government

protestersNearly 200 protesters gathered in front of the White House on the afternoon of June 14 to denounce continued U.S. support for Ethiopia’s incumbent regime. Chanting in native Amharic and rallying around the Ethiopian flag, the crowd members were predominantly from DC’s sizable Ethiopian diaspora.

On May 23, Ethiopia held its fourth national election since transitioning to democracy in 1993. The transition away from dictatorship seems incomplete, however, when all four election have reelected President Meles Zenawi and his monolithic EPRDF party by landslide majorities. This year’s officially reported win margin was 99.6% vote for Zenawi, representing the government’s repression of opposition, use of voter intimidation, and rejection of election monitors. This is a significant regression in democratic governance since the last election Ethiopia held in 2005.

The protesters reacted strongly to this regression, calling on the U.S. to change its foreign policy and aid practices, which currently help prop up Zenawi’s regime. Ethiopia receives the third largest amount of foreign aid from the U.S. after Israel and Egypt, receiving $862 million in foreign assistance in 2009. This inundation of aid and diplomatic silence by the U.S. is projected to be because Ethiopia is such valuable U.S. ally in the volatile horn of Africa and in the War on Terror.

But Ethiopians, both in the Horn of Africa and in the U.S. diaspora, are enraged that the U.S. is prioritizing the stability and anti-terrorism policies of their corrupt despot, Zenawi, over encouraging free and fair elections.

The State Department’s assistant press secretary has remained markedly vague and diplomatic, promising, “We will work diligently with Ethiopia to ensure that strengthened democratic institutions and open political dialogue become a reality for the Ethiopian people.”

Poking a Stick Into the Honor Killing v. Domestic Violence Debate

Islamic girlsFirst, we could start by abandoning this ridiculous, self-indulgent ideological debate over the taxonomy of honour killings. Those on the left who abhor the term are right about one thing: A good few of the people who constantly shout it from the rooftops are mostly interested in demonizing Islam. But that doesn’t change the fact that honour killings can . . . rather easily be distinguished from other cases of domestic violence. A murderer who kills a relative in certainty that his peers will approve is a very different animal from one who does so out of anti-social, purely secular rage.

. . . writes Chris Selley in Recipe to reduce honour killings at Canada’s National Post (gleaned from a Tweet by Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail). More:

Between 1998 and 2007 . . . 65 Canadian children between the ages of 12 and 17 were killed by a family member. One of them was Aqsa Parvez. … Muhammad Parvez felt humiliated by his daughter’s dress, her behaviour and her choice of friends, and his remedy was to choke the life out of her. “My community will say you have not been able to control your daughter,” he lamented to his wife.

If honour killings are on the rise in Canada. … it’s not as if this is a leading cause of death in Canada, or even of domestic homicide. … The question is not whether this is a problem for the diaspora communities in question, and for Canada. It is. The question is whether it demands sweeping, perhaps structural, changes to Canadian society — for example, “the immigration debate we don’t want to have,” as a Globe and Mail headline darkly intoned yesterday. I don’t think it does. I think it just means we need to try harder.

For example . . .

An unapologetic, incessant message to women and girls living in abusive situations that they don’t have to, and should not, put up with it, backed up with well-funded resources like safe houses and punitive criminal sanctions for offenders.

Asking “What’s the alternative?” Selley concludes:

In a highly theoretical world, we could ban immigration from countries or communities where honour crimes are common. That’s obviously not going to happen. And if it did, we’d be denying people like Aqsa Parvez even the chance to be Canadian. [He] came to Canada as a refugee, not as an immigrant. … Canada granted him asylum from persecution . . . and he repaid the favour by persecuting his daughter for wanting to be free. Because of this cretin, we should turn the country upside down? No thanks.

Do Focal Points readers agree that honor killings can easily be distinguished from other cases of domestic violence? Do you agree with the author that all of us in North America need to guard against over-reacting to honor killings?

What Does Gary Brooks Farber’s Quixotic Mission Say About the Rest of Us?

His brother said: “He’s not crazy. He’s not a psychopath. He’s not a sociopath. He’s a man on a mission.” His sister described him as a “very patriotic,” man who “had grown frustrated with the public debate over [our] two major wars [as] the main cause had been forgotten [which was that] a man ordered a hit on our country, so we went to war.”

. . . reports the New York Times on Gary Brooks Farber:

An ailing, middle-age construction worker from Colorado [who] armed himself with a dagger, a pistol, a sword, Christian texts, hashish and night-vision goggles and headed to the lawless tribal areas near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan to personally hunt down Osama bin Laden.

First question for Focal Points readers: Is this vigilante, however much he may be tilting at the windmill of a possibly dead bin Laden, deserving of any admiration whatsoever? Flipping this around, personally I’ve long been somewhat embarrassed by how little interest most Americans have ever shown in tracking bin Laden & co. down. It’s also rendered inexplicable by how we as a nation gorge ourselves on vengeance-based entertainment.

Updating what I wrote in Counterpunch in 2005 . . .

Let’s examine the forces that are ostensibly strong enough to make us jettison the impulse to vengeance.

1. We’re too busy. Living in the most overworked developed nation, we scarcely have the time, even if inclined, to chew over how we were wronged as others in the developed world might, or stew over it like the underemployed of developing nations.

2. Vengeance is so primitive. To many on the East Coast, anger and vengeance are akin to fire and brimstone, that is, the Red states. It’s aggravated by therapy-nation’s credo that anger is not about how we deal with what provoked us, but how we handle the feeling itself. While recent polls [at the time] show Americans favor restrictions of Muslims’ civil liberties, in Manhattan no one turns a head at Arab music issuing from a Middle-Eastern, sidewalk-food-vendor’s boombox. Unfortunately, this comes off less as a commendable reluctance to profile than, once again, an inability to feel and express anger.

3. We’re not actually angry. Many Americans dwelling in points distant from the attacks felt unaffected by 9/11. Others, though it’s seldom spoken of in polite company, we’re secretly glad that New York and Washington were struck. Despite their disdain for the Islamic religion, they weren’t above feeling grateful to its most extreme representatives for wreaking havoc on their biggest enemy: big government and liberals.

4. We ain’t got no quarrel with them Arabs (no disrespect to Muhammad Ali intended). The conventional wisdom on why President Bush was reelected was summed up by Jeff Jacoby in a Boston Globe column: “Americans trust Bush’s judgment on the overriding issue of our time: the West’s life-and-death struggle against Islamist fanaticism. . . he got the core meaning of 9/11 right.” If that’s true, it’s only because the administration sensed, perhaps because of their own pet Saudis, that Middle-Americans had no innate antipathy toward Middle-Easterners. Thus, the string of terror alerts that the administration issued during the election year [2004] may, in part, have been a means of jolting Middle America into upgrading Middle-Easterners to their “A” list of hatred along with gays, Mexicans, and the aforementioned liberals.

5. Bin Laden is not enough. Half of those polled by Zogby International in New York City on the eve of the [2004] Republican National Convention agreed that the administration had foreknowledge of the attacks. While that may be chalked up to fashionable urban cynicism, more and more Americans suspect the administration either commissioned or was complicit in 9/11.

Second question: Granted — 9/11 was a form of blowback. Nor am I personally calling for revenge. My concern is what does our continued nonchalance about bringing back the head of bin Laden say about the mood of our country?

Leave Afghanistan and Declare bin Laden Dead in One Fell Swoop

Someone recently posted a blurb to a security list I play on, quoting a noted Mid East analyst (whose work I admire, incidentally) as saying that the Democrats can’t leave Afghanistan, because that would make them losers, and as a result, they would lose elections for decades to come.

I guess I was either under or over-caffeinated at the moment, because this is a polite version of what spewed out of my terminal . . .

Get over it, people! This is pure legacy thinking!

The Democrats are forever angsting over being accused of ‘losing China’ or being ‘soft on communism’. Time to get their meds titrated.

Between debt, disinterest and rising casualties, it will likely be far more dangerous politically for Obama NOT to bring the boys home quickly.

And here’s how he can do it.

  1. Frame it as a bad war, started by the bozos across the aisle, which he tried to fix, but – so sorry – it was just too late after years of mismanagement under those duplicitous Republicans. And, really folks, we can’t justify more blood and treasure for people who look and talk funny, and don’t like us anyway. Also, dear voters, let’s talk about all that money we’ll save, and how, as your leader in a new term, I’ll use it to create jobs, rebuild your communities and bake a whole ton of apple pies using my dear, old Nona’s secret recipe
  2. Throw (SecDef) Gates under the bus as an example of what happens when you try to be a nice guy and let those duplicitous Republicans help govern and they go and lose a war for you. Dump Hillary, too, for totally bricking it as SecState, being a general pain in the butt, and for a little righteous payback. I mean, it will be time for a cabinet shuffle prior to the election anyway. Also, with any luck, Petraeus will be collateral damage, just as people start to call for drafting him as the Great Republican Hope in 2012.
  3. Blend this with a righteous maskirovka claiming ‘We got UBL!’ (like we ‘got’ all those other muj who later turn out to be inconveniently alive) and claim victory. By the time anyone burns through the jamming, it will be beyond the attention span of the Average American Voter. (Currently estimated at the length of one Idol episode, or until the beer runs out.) Great October Surprise payback, too. Plus, the thought of Osama jumping up and down in front of a video camera screaming, ‘I’m alive, you idiot infidels!’ is just too funny. Imagine it with a Bart Simpson voice-over. Could set the movement back 20 years and the BBBG (big, bad, bearded guy) might even be tempted to wave at a drone pilot just to be taken seriously.
  4. If it turns out the polls say POTUS needs some tough guy creds (if saying ‘kick some ass’ wasn’t tough enough, although it totally scared me) he can just send the Secret Squirrels over and blow the bejeebers out of Somalia, Yemen or some other third world backwater in the name of freedom, democracy and using up the ordnance so the contractors who own congress can replace it all with newer (and more expensive, if not better) models.
  5. Start practicing the tango with Michelle because you’ll look soooo cool at the (second!) inaugural ball.

Oh, gotta run. The phone’s ringing, and I think it’s Rahm Emanuel offering me a consulting gig.

(Yeah, I know I’m being cynical, but am I being cynical enough? And I DO need the work.)

Reader Challenge: Do Burma’s Generals Just Need a Little Love and Understanding?

In Sanctioning Disaster (the June Guernica magazine) author Joel Whitney writes that Obama’s policy on Burma “has something for everyone. It’s a hodgepodge of baby-step diplomacy, self-righteous threats, and crippling economic sanctions.” He then interviews Morten Pedersen, “a Burma scholar lurking in the bibliography of a lot of Burma policy books,” who “insists that the sanctions . . . are undermining [President Obama's] diplomacy. Oh, and starving the Burmese.”

According to Pedersen, Whitney writes, “the most dire rights violation he found was crushing poverty.” Pedersen himself expands on that.

People especially in the U.S., are quick to say, “If you’re not sanctioning then you are doing ASEAN-style engagement, which is commercial engagement.” The kind of engagement I’m talking about is what I term “principle engagement,” … the entire range of human rights, not just political and civil rights, but also socioeconomic rights. [Besides] it is not possible to target sanctions; because if you target them to hurt the generals, they can pass it on [and] deflect it.

Whitney again:

But such an approach would seem anathema to a Congress that prioritizes condemnation and punishment of the generals over the well being of the people of Burma.

Meanwhile, Pedersen doesn’t think that . . .

[Assistant Secretary of State] Kurt Campbell flying into the capital, talking about how they should conduct the elections [is] gonna lead anywhere. … We simply don’t have the means, the leverage, to change a country like that in the dramatic ways that we tend to focus on. … But we do know that conversations about economic policy . . . from time to time have an impact and lead to changes in governance.

But what exactly (their personal wealth aside) is uppermost in the generals’ minds? Pedersen explains.

You need to accept that national security, as the generals define it, is their key concern. … So when you engage with them you need to. … frame your conversations in a way that . . . accepts that there are security concerns that are legitimate. [Emphasis added.]

Then maybe it can be demonstrated to them, says Pedersen, that . . .

. . . other countries in Southeast Asia have also faced risks [to] their country [such as rebellion or civil war]. Rather than addressing that problem militarily like the Burmese have done, [those other countries] have addressed it economically by pushing economic growth and spreading it to provinces.

Do Focal Points readers agree with interview-er and -ee that human rights are, in large part, economic well-being and that it makes more sense to engage with the generals — odious as they are — rather than beat the dead sanctions horse?

Question: Will Lithium Be Good For Afghanistan?

GhazniAnswer: Only if US policymakers ingest enough of it.

The mainstream media is all agog over the ‘discovery’ of ‘at least $1 trillion in mineral wealth‘ in Afghanistan.

Never mind that this is not ‘news’. (The data has been public for many years.)

Nor that it was conveniently ‘discovered by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists’ just as support for the disastrous American adventure in that ‘country’ seems to be ebbing rapidly.

(I do kind of like the image of those tough guy brass-hats spelunking about in pith helmets with their little rock hammers, though. No doubt they were poking around in a cave looking for UBL and just happened to ‘find’ that $1 trillion by accident. ‘Oh, my gosh, Fred, lookie here. Why Afghanistan could become the Saudi Arabia of lithium.’)

Well, excuse my cynicism, but . . .

There is a school of thought that the ‘discovery’ of significant mineral wealth in Afghanistan may, in fact, be the worst thing that could happen in the near- to mid-term for that disastrous parody of a nation state.

As Ganesan and Vines reported for Human Rights Watch, ‘One theory influential in World Bank circles is that countries with abundant natural resources are more prone to violent conflict than those without, and that insurgent groups are more likely motivated by control over resources than by actual political differences with government authorities, ethnic divisions, or other factors typically viewed as root causes of civil war. Paul Collier, formerly the head of the World Bank’s development research group, now a professor at Oxford University and one of the strongest proponents of this theory, says, “[e]thnic tensions and ancient political feuds are not starting civil wars around the world—economic forces such as entrenched poverty and the trade in natural resources are the true culprits”.’

I’d argue Collier (author of The Bottom Billion and The Plundered Planet) overly simplifies this, and that variables such as geography / proximity, the relative capacity of governance, environmental fragility or robustness and many other factors come into play here.

But multiplying them together, the new ‘wealth’ of Afghanistan seems, to me, far more likely to increase than stabilize or reduce conflict.

Consider:

  • truly dismal social / economic conditions for the vast majority of the population
  • proximity to other conflict zones such as Iran, Kashmir, Paki and the other ‘Stans’
  • Great Game interests and accumulated toxic residues
  • access to arms and trafficking routes
  • soil depletion, air and water pollution, deforestation, desertification and limited / unequally distributed / poorly managed fresh water resources
  • an amazingly corrupt and ineffective ‘government’
  • a tribal fabric that defies any larger identity / cohesion

Blend up that complex little cocktail and I believe the technical term for the most likely outcome may indeed be, ‘Open Pit’.

But it won’t be a mine. (At least of the mineral variety.)

It will be a crater.

Reader Challenge: Is Afghan Mineral Find a Game-Changer?

The New York Times reports in U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan.

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

“There is stunning potential here,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the United States Central Command, said in an interview on Saturday. “There are a lot of ifs, of course, but I think potentially it is hugely significant.”

At first glance, it looks like, fate-wise, Afghanistan has finally caught a break. Do Focal Points readers think this will fundamentally improve the country? Or will Afghanistan’s rulers and military siphon off the money? The Taliban have to be drooling. Suddenly, drug trade seems like kid stuff. How will it react?

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